Understanding Hip Flexion

When we’re looking at movement, one of the most important patterns is having the ability to flex your hips, both bilateral and unilateral.  When I’m working with a client, this is one of the first things I want to achieve if it’s subpar and lacking the minimum criteria.  If we want to achieve stellar results, we need to respect mobility and understand that it sits above everything else…besides breathing, but that’s for another day.


Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at clearing mobility issues.  The typical hip flexion issue can and should be fixed, to an acceptable standard, not perfect, fairly quickly.  After we hit the acceptable ranges, our strength and conditioning exercises will become more effective, and they’ll help reinforce the new mobility you’re seeing with your clients, or yourself for that matter.


As little as five years ago, I was simply throwing one or two corrective strategies with everyone, assuming we’re working on the same movement pattern.  It worked about half the time, and the other half, I’d see little to no progress.  Ever have that happen?  I still do to this day, but I’m continuously looking to get better results for myself, and for my clients.  


When I’m looking at hip flexion, there are two main patterns I’m going to look at:

Active Straight Leg Raise (unilateral)

Toe Touch (bilateral)

After seeing what these two patterns look like, I’m going to have a much better idea of how I’m going to attack their strength and conditioning program.  If both patterns are clear, I’ll have no need to take out hip hinging exercises or limit hip flexion/extension exercises…I’d be free to train them and work them through a good series of progressions from there.  However, if I find a limitation in one of those patterns, I know I need to dig a little deeper if I want to improve on that 50/50 success rate I talked about.  Getting amazing results 50% of the time was great earlier on in my career, but at this stage in the game, it’s unacceptable for my personal standards.


So how did I get better at improving that statistic?


Understanding that mobility issues can be due to a stability dysfunction has been an absolute game changer for me.  I’ve learned this from Greg Rose, Gray Cook, Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, and a huge list of other personal mentors, but the one industry leader that really made it stick was Charlie Weingroff.  Not sure if he personally coined the term “hard” and “soft” when looking at mobility, but that my friends…that’s genius and that’s what really made it stick with me.


So what does the term “hard” and “soft” mean?


Since we’re talking about hip flexion, let’s look at the two patterns I listed above: the straight leg raise and the toe touch.


Active Straight Leg Raise:

When I’m training someone, I want to ensure they’re leg raise is clear before I move into deadlifting, swings, cleans, and a bunch of other posterior chain exercises that require a good amount of both hip flexion and extension.  What I consider to be clear is a “2” on the FMS screen.  If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, here’s a link to show you what the straight leg raise is and how the FMS scores this pattern:



Toe Touch:

Along with the straight leg raise, I’d also like to see the ability to touch your toes before I move on to a bunch of strength training via deadlifts, cleans, swings, snatches, etc… If you can’t touch the ground, I’d venture to say deadlifting weight from the floor isn’t the best idea…we can find something better.


Along with having the ability to touch your toes, I’d also like to see a posterior weight shift while doing so.  When I’m looking at the toe touch, I’m not only looking at having the ability to actually touch the toes; I’m also looking to see if the hips move backward in space when bending forward.  This SHOULD happen.  So, if both criteria are met, this is good enough for me, assuming your not in pain.


Now that we know what is functional and what’s not, let’s look at how we find out if a dysfunction is “hard” vs. “soft.”  First, let’s define these terms and then we’ll go from there:


Hard – This is a dysfunction that is truly a mobility issue.  It may be stemming from degenerative joints, potential hereditary issues regarding the femur and how it sits in the acetabulum, tight/stiff muscles, fascial restrictions, or some other issue that is more structural in nature.


(Bone, Joint, Muscle, Tissue)


Soft – In order to have a limitation be coined as soft, it means it’s going to stem from stability and motor control.  Soft limitations aren’t there due to a structural limitation, they’re there because you don’t have the strength, neuromuscular control, or stability demands it takes to do what we’re looking for: a good straight leg raise and relatively clean toe touch.


(Stability, Motor Control, Weakness)


Now that we have an idea of what those terms mean, let’s dig into how we find out if a person has a hard or soft limitation.  Let’s start w/ the leg raise.


When I’m looking at the leg raise, if I don’t see a score of a 2 on the FMS, I want more info.  The things I’m going to look at are: the toe touch and the same leg raise, only done with added stability.


I’m not going to show a video of the toe touch since that’s pretty self explanatory, but the leg raise done with added stability is shown below:



After I look at this pattern, I want to see one thing.


Did the pattern improve, or did it stay the same?


If it stayed the same AND they can’t touch their toes, everything is leading to say that there’s a bone, joint, or muscle/tissue issue going on.  If it improves and clears the pattern, now I’m more confident in saying it’s more of a strength, stability, motor control issue.


These two issues, hard or soft, have drastically different corrective strategies.  Hence my less than stellar results years ago.  It worked sometimes didn’t others simply due to understanding this.  Since I’ve started to look at the limitations from a hard limitation or a soft limitation, my results have drastically improved.  Now I can be more of a sharp shooter in my approach versus winging stuff out there in the hopes it will work.


So to wrap things up, don’t always judge a book by it’s cover.  Start to look a little deeper and you’ll start to improve your results.  The cool thing about it…It only takes a couple minutes longer to look at this stuff.  Very good time return on my investment for the time it spent to look deeper.


Start to look at mobility in a different way and start to see if the limitation is hard or soft.  Change stability, assist the movement, or do something else to make it easier.  If the limitation is there everywhere…think hard limitation.  If you make the move a little easier and all the sudden it clears up or improves dramatically, think soft limitation.


Corrective strategies will come another day, but for the time being, start to pay attention to the mobility issues you’re seeing and start to see if they’re hard or soft.  If it’s hard, do soft tissue work, stretching, or possibly refer out to a PT or chiro for faster results.  If it’s soft, give them a little assistance with stability, start to improve strength, and help them groove the pattern ensuring good clean reps done each time.  Start to become a sharp shooter in your approach and you’ll stop wasting time on things that just don’t work.